Part of Our World: celebrating and criticizing Disney’s Little Mermaid
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Disney’s classic film, “The Little Mermaid,” celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary this week. It may seem like old news to the massive amounts of Disney fanatics on campus, but for those who moved on from childhood movies long ago, it might come as a surprise that Ariel is older than most college students.
We were born into a world that was already familiar with the story, either from the original Hans Christian Andersen tale, or from the reinvented Disney version, a world predisposed to the complex images of love, beauty, and all of the other baggage that comes along with Disney’s celebrated films. Such themes have been scrutinized for as long as Disney has been a household name, and the questions “The Little Mermaid” poses are no exception.
“The Little Mermaid” was instrumental in bringing the Disney franchise into its Renaissance period, which included the production of many highly successful films well into the 1990s. The most revolutionary aspect of the film was the character of Ariel herself. Preceded by passive, demure princesses such as Aurora and Snow White, Ariel is uniquely spunky, rebellious, curious and determined.
However, despite her more intriguing and revolutionary characteristics, there are some qualities about Ariel’s persona that simply cannot be overlooked, warranting suspicion or repulsion.
Though some attribute their distaste of the character primarily in her unrealistic appearance (Honestly, who’s hair looks that good when you get out of the water?), for many, Ariel’s attitude is the most off-putting factor. In her big solo song, “Part of Your World,” Ariel ponders the vast cavern full of material things that she’s collected, deems them not enough, and literally sings “I want more.”
Yes, it can be said she wants something more fulfilling or satisfying than what material objects can provide, but Ariel’s attitude simultaneously comes off as shockingly selfish and ungrateful.
Not only was all of her stuff not enough, but her family as well. Despite having a strong familial support system, an element many Disney movies lack, Ariel swims off anyway, much to the disapproval of those who love her. Ariel’s disobedience shocks many in the way she dismisses the love and friendship of her friends and family in favor of a distant dream. What kind of example is a rebellious teenager actively defying the rules and wishes of those who care for and protect her?
Something must also be said for Ariel’s physical presence. Bright eyed, well endowed, impossibly skinny and with flowing red locks that seemed to defy logic, Ariel’s figure imposed a standard of beauty that is quite simply unattainable. Especially in contrast to the villain of the film, the buxom, overweight, shorthaired, deep-voiced Ursula, Ariel’s ridiculous image drilled a falsely idealized picture of beauty into the minds of impressionable children viewers, convincing them that physical beauty is inextricably linked to goodness or praise.
These judgments of Ariel are hardly the prevailing attitude, however. Critics and Disney fanatics alike have praised Ariel for her more tangible and active personality that some of her predecessors seemed to lack. Unlike the princesses before her, who merely dreamed and wished for a better future, Ariel swims off in pursuit of it, despite the consequences of her rash actions. Combined with her incredible determination and utter devotion to her dreams, Ariel certainly paints an interesting and captivating picture.
Is Ariel worthy of critical and cinematic praise? Perhaps. Her arrival on the Disney stage paved the way for future princesses that were more rebellious, bold, and took matters into their own hands, like bookish Belle and honorable Mulan. Yet Ariel is far from the perfect role model, and the overwhelming saturation of Disney images and films in our culture ought to raise suspicion and caution.
Before celebrating Disney’s portrayal of “The Little Mermaid” too wholeheartedly, Ariel’s erroneous judgment, stubborn rebellious attitude, and dangerously picturesque physique should be weighed equally with her more admirable qualities.